“Tea has my heart,” Liz Coleman explained as she sank into a chair under the gold-painted ceilings of the Grand Café in Oxford, England. “But I can’t live without coffee.”
Ms. Coleman, 31, was getting her caffeine fix from an almond milk latte that she sipped during a break from a nearby conference this month. As a British woman of Persian descent, tea looms large in her home life, she said, but when she is out, it is always coffee.
Tea is woven deep into Britain’s cultural fabric, having arrived in the 1650s after Dutch traders brought it to Europe from China. Centuries of tradition made it the nation’s favorite hot drink. But coffee, a longtime rival, has increasingly challenged that status, and a recent survey suggested it had finally ousted tea from its prime spot, setting off a war of statistics as the two industries defend their beverages.
So, is coffee really Britons’ new national drink?
For cafe patrons in Oxford — where historians have traced some of Britain’s earliest coffeehouses, and where a new specialty coffee scene has exploded in recent years — it is complicated.
The Grand Café is on the site of a coffeehouse established in 1650. On a recent morning, the cafe’s owner, Ham Raz, explained that tourists often ordered loose-leaf tea with their sandwiches, scones and cakes, but that British customers typically had coffee.
When he first came to Oxford 30 years ago, he said, “British people didn’t want to take as many risks.”
“Now everybody is doing coffee,” added Mr. Raz, 51. “And people’s behavior is changing.”
The recent coffee boom can be traced to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when mass-market coffee chains, including Britain’s Costa Coffee and American brands like Starbucks, kick-started a national espresso obsession.
But it is perhaps Oxford’s newer coffeehouses, driven by their patrons’ preferences for high-grade, artisan coffee, that can offer a window into the beverage’s rising claim on Britons’ routines — and wallets. At the Missing Bean cafe, Liz Fraser was scribbling in her notebook and enjoying a double-shot cortado.
Ms. Fraser, 48, an Oxford-born travel writer, distinctly remembers her first cup of “proper” coffee.
“I had my first cappuccino in the U.K. in 1998, just after my first daughter was born,” she said, adding that it “felt like stepping into a different country.” Until that point, she had had only instant coffee.
Eighty percent of households in Britain still buy instant coffee for in-home consumption, particularly those 65 and older, according to the British Coffee Association, though ground coffee and pods are rising in popularity, particularly among younger generations. The country drinks about 98 million cups of coffee per day.
The Missing Bean has been serving up cups of the hot stuff since 2009. Since then, specialty coffee culture has boomed as an alternative to the chains on nearly every corner, said one of the cafe’s founders, Ori Halup.
“I would very proudly say back then that we were the only good coffee you could get here, and now I can give you 10 great places to go for coffee in Oxford,” he said, adding, “And that option is amazing.”
The Missing Bean has grown to include five cafes — some outside Oxford — a roastery, a bakery and an online shop that ships across Britain. Baristas behind the cafes’ counters give each drink time, care and attention, like creating intricate art for lattes in the foamy milk as they pour.
“It’s something that you can’t do at home, which always adds magic,” Mr. Halup said. “Most people don’t have an espresso machine and grinder and everything else.”
But he acknowledges that tea still looms large in the national psyche. “I think people drink more tea than they do coffee still, just in a different way,” he said. “You drink tea at home because it’s practically free compared to a coffee out.”
Mr. Halup is only one among many skeptics of the recent reports that Britain’s growing coffee culture has elbowed tea out.
A study published in August by Statista was small — only 2,400 people — but 63 percent of respondents said they regularly drank coffee, with only 59 percent regularly choosing tea.
Sharon Hall, the chief executive of the U.K. Tea & Infusions Association, said in a statement that Britons were drinking more than 100 million cups of tea each day — two million more than the estimated total for coffee.
Bolstering coffee’s case, British shoppers bought nearly twice as many packs of coffee in supermarkets from August 2022 to August 2023 compared with tea, according to data shared by Kantar. But this evidence is contestable: A pack of 200 tea bags would last far longer than a 200-gram bag of ground coffee, which would normally make about 30 cups. The overall money spent on coffee in British supermarkets was also more than double that of tea, though coffee is typically more expensive.
Jane Pettigrew, a founder and the director of studies at the U.K. Tea Academy, said it had always been difficult to accurately track Britain’s favorite hot drink. Tea, she said, has been part of the country’s culture for more than 350 years, affecting social life, laws and more, and she does not see that fading anytime soon.
Since the introduction of mass-produced tea bags in the middle of the 20th century, Ms. Pettigrew said, “the whole romance of drinking tea and your connection to the tea you were buying and drinking disappeared.”
But high-quality loose-leaf tea, much like specialty coffee, is also having a moment, she said, with tea shops focusing on ethical production and eco-conscious sourcing popping up around Britain.
“There’s always been this kind of, ‘Oh, tea is so boring,’ but it’s still very much part of our in-home drinking,” Ms. Pettigrew said. “For so many years, they’ve been saying, ‘Oh, coffee is so much more exciting, and people are drinking more.’ And I’m not prepared to accept that.”
In Cardews of Oxford, which boasts that it is the “oldest established supplier of fresh roasted coffees and fine teas in Oxford,” staff members agreed that people were increasingly seeking coffee.
But tourists tended to look for something quintessentially British.
“We often get asked for our most English teas,” said Isaac Lloyd, who was working behind the counter. “And I have to gently tell them that, actually, none of this tea is grown in England, although we do have English blends.”
Mr. Lloyd, 18, said that he liked to guess whether a customer would buy tea or coffee, and that often the divide was generational. But his colleague Charlie Jordan said that people often surprised him.
“The ritual of making tea, lots of people seem to really enjoy that,” Mr. Jordan, 28, remarked, and that spans all ages.
Mr. Lloyd chimed in with a laugh: “Most people just want what kicks them out of bed in the morning the fastest.”